Zika virus not discouraging most would-be Olympians

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FORT WORTH, Texas – Over the last few weeks, golf has begun to develop its own four-letter word, one that has started to ripple its way through the sport with increasing speed.

Zika.

The Olympics kick off in Rio de Janeiro in exactly 72 days, a fact that has brought increased scrutiny to the Zika virus outbreak currently affecting Brazil among other parts of the Americas. Its impact and scope continue to develop, even according to the World Health Organization, and it will likely cause nearly every Olympian to take at least some sort of precautionary measure.

But when it comes to golf, which returns to the Olympics this summer for the first time since 1904, Zika is actually impacting the field of entrants. While players like Adam Scott, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel withdrew from Olympic consideration over scheduling issues, Vijay Singh and Marc Leishman both specifically cited the virus as a factor in their recent withdrawals.

Things escalated once again this week when both Rory McIlroy and Danny Willett hinted that the virus might influence their decisions to tee it up in Rio, and even the top American noted that the issue remains in the forefront.

“I’m interested in keeping a very close eye on what’s going on around the Olympics, too, mainly off the course,” Jordan Spieth said Wednesday. “Trying to figure out the safety concerns, figure out plans, but as of now I’m extremely excited for it.”

While Zika may impact golf’s return to the Olympic stage, there are still plenty of players eager to compete for gold.

Few players understand golf’s global nature more than India’s Anirban Lahiri. The 28-year-old left his native country on Jan. 9, and he estimates that he won’t return until the conclusion of the FedEx Cup season. In between, he’ll play a cross-continent schedule, highlighted by a stretch this summer that he described as “45 days of mayhem.”

That run will include a trip to Rio where Lahiri, ranked No. 56 in the world, will almost assuredly earn one of two spots on the Indian golf roster. That ranking could be in the midst of an upgrade this week after Lahiri opened with a 5-under 65 at Colonial Country Club to sit one shot off the lead.

Lahiri is aware of the Zika situation, noting that “the threat is real.” He’s planning to take plenty of recommended precautions, both before traveling and once in the Olympic village.

But hailing from a populous country where golf is not necessarily viewed as a priority, Lahiri feels that the positives of a potentially strong showing outweigh the personal risks associated with making the trip.

“It would mean a lot to the country to get a medal out of a game like golf, and probably put that in the forefront or in the spotlight,” Lahiri said. “So for me, the Olympics is a very important event, maybe more so than a lot of guys who are going, because of that.”

New Zealand’s Danny Lee is also projected to qualify for Rio, and he has been keeping an eye on the situation in Brazil as it has developed. But like Lahiri, he plans to play.

“It’s not like I don’t care about the Zika virus or all that stuff happening over there, but it still is the Olympics,” Lee said. “You’re representing your country and you’re going as an Olympian instead of trying to win money or accomplish something. You are accomplishing something if you win a medal, but it’s more for the honor than the glory, I guess.”

For Lee, it’s also an opportunity to bring attention to a country which has produced a men’s major champion in Michael Campbell as well as the world’s top-ranked female player, Lydia Ko, but which is sometimes overlooked on the golf landscape.

“Everybody thinks there’s not many good golfers in New Zealand. I just want to prove them wrong,” said Lee, who won last year at The Greenbrier Classic. “It’s just, New Zealand is so far from America, it’s hard to watch a lot of the New Zealand guys play. And they don’t have enough of an opportunity to come over here and play all the amateur golf that I did, because it’s not cheap to come over here.”

When it comes to player decisions regarding Zika, there is no correct answer. The choice to play is a deeply personal one, and it’s an especially nuanced situation for players who may consider having children in the near future.

But even if the withdrawals have not yet ended, one thing is certain: There will be 60 players eager to take part in golf’s Olympic return this summer, each with an eye on boosting its global appeal on the biggest stage around.

“For me personally, I want to play the Olympics,” Lahiri said. “I really, really want to play the Olympics because it’s a great opportunity for me to do something for my sport.”